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Festivals

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Though Iceland’s calendar is predominantly Christian, many official holidays and festivals have a secular theme, and at least one dates from pagan times. Some are already familiar: Christmas and Easter Monday are both holidays in Iceland and are celebrated as elsewhere in the Western world, as is New Year.

Harking back to the Viking era, however, Þorrablót is a midwinter celebration that originally honoured the weather god Þorri, and became something to look forward to during the bleakest time of the year. It is held throughout February, when people throw parties centred around the consumption of traditional foods such as svið and hákarl, with some restaurants also laying on special menus.

Sjomannadagur, or Seamen’s Day (June 4), unsurprisingly, is one of the biggest holidays of the year, with communities organizing mock sea-rescue demonstrations, swimming races and tug-of-war events. This is followed by another break for Independence Day (June 17), the day that the Icelandic state separated from Denmark in 1944.

Although not an official holiday, Jónsmessa, on June 24, is the day that elves and other magical creatures are said to be out in force, playing tricks on the unwary; some people celebrate with a big bonfire, and it’s also meant to be good for your health to run around naked.

Verslunnarmannahelgi, the Labour Day Weekend, takes place around the country on the first weekend in August. Traditionally, everybody heads into the countryside, sets up camp, and spends the rest of the holiday drinking and partying themselves into oblivion; hit any campsite in the country at this time and you’ll be sharing it with thousands of drunken teenagers. On Heimaey in the Westman Islands, Þjódhátið is held on the same day and celebrated in the same way – there’s live music, too, and a huge bonfire – though it nominally commemorates Iceland’s achieving partial political autonomy in 1874.

One event to look out for, though it’s not a single festival, is the annual stock round-up, or rettir, which takes place in rural areas throughout September. This is when horses and sheep are herded by riders on horseback down from the higher summer pastures to be penned and sorted; some farms offering accommodation allow guests to watch or even participate.

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